Carlisle United 2 Salford City 1: That cheer. That’s what we’d waited for; what all these unsettling, barren months have been missing. In the 34th minute, Lewis Alessandra sent the ball curling and spinning into the left of Salford’s net. The noise that greeted Carlisle’s beautiful opening goal was a familiar sound, but also strangely special.
It was 2,000 people making football sound the way it should again. The same applied when they were bellowing oaths at referee Graham Salisbury, chastising Salford’s players, cheering other ventures by Chris Beech’s team.
Or anything else they did, said, yelled or sang, in fact. Other than September’s isolated test game, the only noises at Brunton Park since March have been of players shouting, managers hollering and reporters talking or typing.
This was much more like it, and hopefully a heartening step back to – now, what’s that word again? – normality.
On the pitch, Carlisle seemed lifted by the overdue occasion. They took a second goal through the impressive Rhys Bennett and though the visitors got a late one back, United were better than Salford, solid value for the points.
A good night, then, for the Blues and, dare we say it, for football in its latest step through this curious, Covid year.
The first masked Paddock-dwellers arrived a couple of minutes before 6pm, strolling onto the old terrace and finding their places amid the tape and the signs. There was then a slow filtering in of more supporters and, progressively, Brunton Park looked like itself again.
Even the previously routine sights caught the eye more than normal: stewards in their hi-vis, extra cars parked, people sauntering around the stadium. The lights on in the Beehive.
The life force of a match at this place was returning. This was the evening’s real victory, regardless of what unfolded on the pitch (which, as ever thanks to David Mitchell, looked pristine under the lights).
Beech made a couple of selection tweaks in a bid to reward the returning faithful. Danny Devine came in for his first league start and Alessandra was back into the attack, Joe Riley and Gime Toure making way.
As those players made a point of applauding the supporters after the warm-ups – the 2,000 applauded heartily back, a few roaring them down the tunnel – Salford’s team list looked stacked with high-grade players for this level. United, though, started on the offensive, and all their positive beginning to the game lacked was the killer chance, the goal.
United were the prevailing force in the first half-hour and, encouraged by those voices in the stands, skipped forward with regular intent. Omari Patrick was the first to open up down the left, Callum Guy’s eagerness for the contest then taking him into a late challenge on Bruno Andrade which earned him a second-minute booking.
Andrade became the Paddock’s first target for ire as things went on but mostly the fans were urging Carlisle into more attacking areas. Long throws and crosses came in, while George Tanner made a positive fist of stopping Salford breaks at source and getting United going again on the right.
He was involved in a foray which resulted in Alessandra lofting a cross too far from a good position, while more front foot play led to a Guy corner and a Joshua Kayode flick which Aaron Hayden couldn’t convert.
Salford wanted to play out, but were limited in their efforts to do so. Up front, Ian Henderson went off with a head injury, while Carlisle’s next attempt was miscued by Tanner into Bennett’s path, the defender just failing to turn it past keeper Vaclav Hladky.
Devine, alongside Jon Mellish in the advanced midfield areas, used the ball tidily and almost broke onto another chance, but used his arm to control before firing over. Luke Burgess put a rare Salford shot wide but Carlisle came again, Tanner going close from 30 yards, Patrick dipping a long-ranger over, and Alessandra then showing everyone how it’s done with a splendid, curling left-footed attempt from the edge of the box.
It was a justified lead bearing in mind how United had pushed forward and pressed with such persistence and, by and large, dominance: dominance which could have brought more goals with tighter use of the ball they had often won back and used in good positions.
A set-piece almost brought Salford back, but Jordan Turnbull headed a good chance wide, Bennett then in the right place to clear a dangerous cross before Carlisle ended the half at another canter, Mellish almost turning in a Patrick cross and the latter skimming a shot on target from distance.
The first chant of “You don’t know what you’re doing” in a football ground for many a month was reserved for the fussy Salisbury as he booked Kayode before the break. After it, Salford stirred through Ashley Hunter and then with a brace of real openings, the first slotted across goal and wide by Burgess, the second put away by Andrade but from an offside position.
The visitors had found a sharper touch but Carlisle’s appetite remained. Kayode made a couple of superb, battling runs, one of which surprised the otherwise bright Devine when the cross reached him, and then it was 2-0: Guy’s deep free-kick headed in by the diving Bennett.
“Sign him up,” sang a lone voice in the Pioneer Stand. Sound advice, sir. Further emboldened, Carlisle went close again when Andrade cleared off the line after Hayden tried to scramble home a Tanner cross.
United had their cushion and everyone seemed to sense it. There was a blow with a 75th minute injury to Guy (Dean Furman taking his place) but otherwise Carlisle seemed to be seeing things through with minimum sweat, until Di’shon Bernard headed home a left-wing cross in the 90th minute to set up an itchy finish.
They got there, though, sub Toure failing to hit an empty net after Hladky had come up for a last-gasp corner, and, all in all, it was a heartening night on the grass and the most welcome of experiences overall in a ground that, at long last, sounded just the way it ought to.